Why a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine is unlikely

As readers of this blog are aware, I believe that Moscow’s Ukraine policy has been driven primarily by geopolitical concerns rather than fear of democratic contagion. Above all, the Kremlin has been, and remains, determined to keep Ukraine out of NATO. It is only slightly less determined to keep Ukraine out of the European Union and to prevent NATO from building up its eastern defenses. And it probably still hopes that Ukraine can eventually be persuaded, or forced, to cast its lot with Russia rather than with Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.

At the same time, the Kremlin has made clear that it will pursue its strategic objectives in Ukraine using all means at its disposal short of war with the West. It has also made clear that it has a high tolerance for risk.

What is not clear, however, is how the Kremlin’s strategic objectives and tactics are linked. Continue reading

Ukraine: Lessons learned from other “frozen conflicts” in the Soviet successor states

[The following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the VoxUkraine Club, Kyiv, October 23.]


Four constants

  1. None of the conflicts has been resolved peacefully
  2. Each “parent state” has lost all de facto sovereignty over the breakaway region
  3. In no case has the international community been successful in mediating a political settlement
  4. In no case has there been significant repatriation of internally displaced persons

Three variables that don’t vary much

  1. All the breakaway regions are doing poorly economically, with some variation
  2. All the breakaway states are dependent on external patron states, with some variation
  3. All the breakaway states have a “stateness” problem, with some variation

Four importantly varying variables

  1. The “resolution” of the Chechen case
  2. The cultural-political distance between the contending parties
  3. Public determination in the parent state to retake the lost territories
  4. The extent of cooperation between the parent state and the breakaway state

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US policy toward Ukraine in the remaining years of the Obama presidency

[The following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the Kyiv School of Economics on October 22, 2014.]

I started a blog earlier this year, the intent of which is to try to predict major developments in post-Soviet space, including of course in Ukraine – so the emphasis is on what I think will happen, not what I want to happen. That’s the spirit of my talk today as well: I’m going to tell you what I think U.S. policy will be toward Ukraine in the remaining years of the Obama presidency, not what I think it should be. I will focus first on domestic development in the U.S., because domestic political factors inevitably influence a president’s foreign policy. I will then turn to U.S. policy toward Ukraine, beginning with some general points and then addressing the particular issues shown in Slide 1. Continue reading

Eastern Ukraine: A slow and painful freezing of a not-yet-frozen conflict

The strategic situation in eastern Ukraine is little changed from where it was on September 5 when the “ceasefire” was announced. A line of control has yet to be agreed to, and while the level of violence is much lower than it was over the summer, fighting continues, particularly in Schastiya (north of Luhansk), Debaltseve (a strategic crossroads between Luhansk and Donetsk), and in and around the international airport in Donetsk. Continue reading

Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in perspective

I am not an economic determinist, at least in the sense that I don’t assume that people are motivated by lucre alone. I do not believe, for example, that economic factors, deeply rooted or otherwise, are always the “real” cause of war. And economic factors only sometimes account for the outcome of wars, as Americans were reminded in Vietnam.

I do believe, however, that what the Soviets used to call the “correlation of forces” – that is, the dynamics of the global balance of power – is driven primarily by economic factors. Size matters, geography matters, culture matters, institutions matter, but economic performance matters most (even if economic performance is partially or largely a product of any or all of the former).

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Why the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is unlikely to hold

We are closer than we were a week ago to a military balance in eastern Ukraine that could allow for a ceasefire to take hold, assuming that a ceasefire is what Kyiv and Moscow want, but I do not believe we are there yet. The problem is that the current disposition of forces is not conducive to an end to the fighting. Continue reading

Whither the Russian/pro-Russian offensive?

My view is that Ukraine has lost sovereignty over at least part of the Donbas for the foreseeable future. Its forces are retreating from multiple battlegrounds, including the Luhansk airport, and they appear to be on the verge of losing control of the Donetsk airport. It is still possible that Russia will decide to launch a full-scale assault on the Ukrainian military in an effort to destroy its war fighting capabilities (the shock and awe option), but I think that is unlikely. It is also possible that the Russians/pro-Russians will press forward in the south, along the Sea of Azov, in an effort to establish a land corridor to Crimea. But at the least it is clear that the offensive is directed at driving the Ukrainians back from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk roughly to the defensive line suggested by the Ukraine@War blog discussed earlier, and perhaps beyond.

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Reflections on Russia’s military objectives in Ukraine

I suspect that yesterday will go down as the day that a war to suppress separatists in eastern Ukraine became the first “Russo-Ukrainian War.” It is now clear that regular Russian military units are fighting alongside Ukrainian separatists and Russian irregulars (“military tourists,” many of whom have received training at a base near Rostov). Over the past several weeks, it appears the Russian irregulars have begun to outnumber Ukrainian separatists among the combatants. They have now been joined by growing numbers of Russian regulars, including elite special-forces (Spetsnaz) units – the “Polite Little Green Men” who were so effective in taking control of Crimea in February and early March. US intelligence sources claimed today that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are now in Ukraine, and informally American officials are telling reporters that figure is probably more like 2,000 or more. Continue reading

What Putin may offer Poroshenko in Minsk

There are more indications today that Russia is ramping up military pressure on Ukraine and that its slow-drip invasion may accelerate if an agreement is not reached in Minsk tomorrow. There are multiple reports that a column of 40 or more armored vehicles has broken through the border near Novoazovsk in the south of Donetsk oblast and are headed toward Mariupol, Ukraine’s primary port on the Sea of Azov. Continue reading

Why a political solution in eastern Ukraine is unlikely until there is a military solution

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus, to discuss a possible political solution to the violent uprisings in eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, I think the likelihood of success in Minsk– that is, an agreement that brings an end to the fighting and sets the stage for a political settlement with the separatists – is very low. Continue reading

What happens if Russia does not invade Ukraine?

Although pro-Russian fighters and armaments continue to cross the border from Russia into Ukraine, and the intensity of the fighting in eastern Ukraine has increased, the Ukrainian offensive has continued to make progress. Ukrainian forces appear to be on the verge of taking Horlivka, have entered central Luhansk, and are pressing in on Donetsk. Whatever unified political and military leadership there was among the separatists also appears to have collapsed.

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Whither the convoy? A fateful decision for Putin and his advisors

The humanitarian convoy that left the suburbs on Moscow on Tuesday did not, as expected, continue down the M2 highway straight for the border crossing to the north of Kharkiv. Instead, it took a left turn in Tula and proceeded on to Voronezh, where it has remained since. From Voronezh, if the intent is to deliver aid to Luhansk, it can either head southwest toward the Shebekino crossing near Kharkiv, or it can head south toward the border crossings in eastern Luhansk oblast that are still controlled by the separatists (see map). Continue reading

Reflections on four months of blogging

I started this blog four months ago because I wanted to contribute to the public debate over the unfolding drama in Ukraine. I had given a number lectures and interviews on the crisis, and had written two opinion pieces, but events were unfolding very fast and I wanted a way to contribute quickly and frequently, so I decided to try my hand at a blog.

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Russia’s Ukraine policy: A strategic mistake made worse by tactical blunders

I have been convinced since last fall that Russia’s policies toward Ukraine would ultimately backfire. Assuming that the Kremlin’s goal was to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, it was a mistake to have been so heavy-handed in pressuring Kyiv to reject the EU association agreement last November.

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The Ukrainian and North Caucasus insurgencies compared

The violent uprisings in eastern Ukraine differ from the insurgency that has been underway in the North Caucasus since the early 1990s in many ways – the mobilizing ideologies of the resistance movements are different, the terrain is different, the social context is different, the geopolitical implications are obviously very different, and so on. There are three differences, however, that strike me as particularly noteworthy: (1) the greater firepower of the Ukrainian insurgents; (2) the extent of media coverage; and (3) technological changes (the internet, digital cameras, smart phones, and social media) that account for what I will call the “crowdsourcing of intelligence” in the Ukrainian uprisings.

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The implications of the downing of two Ukrainian SU-25s today

The Ukrainian government has announced, and there is video evidence and journalist reports confirming, that two Ukrainian SU-25s were brought down in the vicinity of the crash site of MH-17. The fighters came down around five miles from the Russian border near the town of Dmytrivka (see The New York Times map on its Ukraine Crisis in Maps page). According to the spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense and Security Council, Andrey Lysenko, the planes were flying at an altitude of 5,200 meters (a little over 17,000 feet). Continue reading

No quiet on the eastern front: The battle for Donetsk commences

It appears that the battle for Donetsk has begun and that the war in eastern Ukraine is coming to a decisive head. My guess is that Kyiv has decided to take advantage of the downing of MH-17 by pressing ahead with its offensive against the rebels and will try to defeat them decisively in their stronghold, the city of Donetsk.  Continue reading